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Published: Saturday, 3/20/2010

Experiments in fun: Grandma Science, aka Dawn Shock, makes lessons entertaining

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Take one adult who didn't like science as a kid, toss in a few common household items, some life experience, and a little showmanship, and just like that you've got Grandma Science.

This mistress of the Glob, Outrageous Ooze, and other scientific razzle-dazzle is otherwise known as Dawn Shock, a retired community librarian/branch manager for the Monroe County Library System. Using staples of daily life including eggs, cornstarch, baking soda, food coloring, and vinegar, and ordinary items such as balloons and a hair dryer, she proves that science isn't some distant concept that dwells in a lab.

"Everything we do is science," declared the 60-year-old Temperance resident who with her husband, Alvin, has six children, 23 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren. Scientific principles are at work all around us, she said.

For 13 years, she's been proving her point through experiments that explain why, for example, a Whoopee cushion makes noises that kids (and, OK, grown-ups) find excruciatingly funny. (It's because vibration and air create sound. When someone sits on the inflated Whoopee cushion, air is forced through the narrow rubber neck, causing vibration of the end flaps and producing what sounds like a human backfire.)

"We make it fun so we grab their attention," Mrs. Shock said. The more amusing, surprising, and gross, the better.

Mrs. Shock uses a hair dryer to show how an air current can keep a ball afloat. Mrs. Shock uses a hair dryer to show how an air current can keep a ball afloat.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Another activity demonstrates how far germs can spray from a sneeze or cough. For the "simulated sneeze," Mrs. Shock puts pieces of confetti into a balloon which she then inflates and knots at the end. When she pops the balloon with a safety pin she wears on her "Grandma Science" T-shirt, the little pieces of paper shoot through the air.

Her life as Grandma Science goes back to when she was running family story-time at the Robert A. Vivian Branch Library in Monroe. She had used music, crafts, and movies to enliven the programs, and was looking for other elements to add.

"I wanted them to learn something different," she said, so she began researching and collecting easy science experiments. After about a year and a half, she had filled a notebook with them and began thinking it would be fun to share what she had with people at other branches.

The graphic artist at the library system christened Mrs. Shock and her program "Grandma Science," and "I've been doing it ever since."

She doesn't devise her own experiments. "All my stuff comes out of books," Mrs. Shock explained, citing works by Texas author Janice VanCleave. The two women have developed a friendship, and Mrs. Shock has put a link to the author's Web site (scienceprojectideasforkids.com) on her own site (grandmascience.com). Grandma Science also is on Facebook.

Mrs. Shock said her goal is to stimulate interest in science at an early age, particularly among girls. "I think a lot of kids are afraid of science," she said, admitting she wasn't a fan of the subject when she was in school. "I didn't understand it."

Her programs last 45 minutes to an hour; the cost is $150. She has presented them throughout Michigan and Ohio, primarily at public libraries as part of summer reading programs but also at schools, churches, meetings, birthday parties, and festivals.

In the beginning, she presented her programs primarily to children in kindergarten to fifth grade, she said. "Now it's kids of all ages. I find grandparents like it as much as the kids."

More than once an adult has told her afterwards, "I never knew that!"

For example: Ever wonder why a tornado can sweep up objects and carry them for miles?

It has to do with the captive power of air currents, which Mrs. Shock demonstrates by suspending a ping-pong ball over the nozzle end of a hair dryer. With the setting on high, she moves the dryer from side to side. The ball moves with it, trapped in the stream of air.

She uses eggshells to demonstrate the strength of domes, a shape which owes its might to the even distribution of pressure. To prepare for the experiment, Mrs. Shock has drained and rinsed two eggs and cut them cross-wise. She positions each of the halves, open end down, as though they were four corners of a rectangle. She then places a book on top of the half-shells. Then another, and another.

"I have gotten as high as 38 books," Mrs. Shock said. Sometimes the pile topples over before the shells break.

Her presentations don't always go as planned.

She recalled the time she made a little vehicle out of a juice carton, sliced lengthwise. The idea was to inflate a balloon and put it inside the carton, then release the stem end sticking out of a hole in the back. The release of air would then propel the car forward.

Except that it didn't.

"I said, ‘Well that didn't work,' and the kids were laughing," Mrs. Shock said.

But she thought about it for a moment and realized the carpet might be keeping the wheels from moving freely. She put the vehicle on a table and tried again.

That time it worked, offering a second lesson to the kids: "If something doesn't work, think about the possible reasons and try, try again."

Grandma Science has learned along the way too. "I have learned that kids at 3 through 8 are nothing but sponges. They love to learn, they love to please people, and I just enjoy it so much," she said.

One of her crowd-pleasing concoctions is called Outrageous Ooze: cornstarch, water, and a little food coloring. Combine them and stir to thicken.

If you pick up the ooze and squeeze it, she explained, it will hold its shape. But if you release the pressure, it will run through your fingers.

"It shows that something can be a solid and a liquid — and that science is fun!" she said.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6126.



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